Michael Dobbs

Inside the mind of Ratko Mladic

If anyone is qualified to get into the mind of a mass murderer, it is David Rohde. The former New York Times reporter — now a columnist for Reuters news agency — has the unique distinction of being held captive by both the Bosnian Serbs and the Taliban at the height of their ideological struggle ...

If anyone is qualified to get into the mind of a mass murderer, it is David Rohde. The former New York Times reporter — now a columnist for Reuters news agency — has the unique distinction of being held captive by both the Bosnian Serbs and the Taliban at the height of their ideological struggle against the West. He has also written a 1997 book, Endgame, that still stands up as the most authoritative account of the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995 and the subsequent killings of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men.

During a recent conference on Srebrenica hosted by the City University of New York, David made the interesting observation that the Taliban and Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic shared a very similar sense of victimization.  During his seven months in Taliban captivity in 2008, he had to endure long lectures from his kidnappers about the supposed western conspiracy to blame Muslims for 9/11 and force them to convert to Christianity. He had listened to similar diatribes, from the Orthodox Christian point of view, while being held by the Bosnian Serbs thirteen years earlier. (He had made an unauthorized trip into Republika Srpska while attempting to investigate the Srebrenica massacre.) His Serb captors claimed that Muslim women were under instructions to produce as many children as possible, in order to turn Bosnia into an Islamic state.

David told me later that he had experienced a similar conspiratorial mindset from Hindu extremists in India and Sinhalese nationalists in Sri Lanka. What most alarmed him was "not so much the human tendency to be sadistic, to know that you are doing wrong and enjoy it, but our ability to rationalize almost anything we do.  Both the Taliban and the Bosnian Serbs felt they were completely justified in carrying out these horrible atrocities."

I have included extracts from my interview with Rohde above. Off-camera, we also discussed Mladic’s motivation in ordering the executions of thousands of Muslim prisoners of war. He pointed to the following footage, showing Mladic’s entry into Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, as the best evidence for his state of mind on that day.  At 1:49 in the footage, shot by one of his soldiers, the Bosnian Serb commander talks about finally "taking revenge" against "the Turks" for a massacre that took place more than a century earlier. He describes the fall of Srebrenica as a "gift to the Serbian people."

Megalomania played a role in the tragedy of Srebrenica. According to Rohde, Mladic "saw this as his moment in history to pay back ‘the Turks,’" as he called Muslims, for crimes supposedly committed against the Serbs. This was his chance to "establish his fame" as a Serbian national hero.

David believes that Mladic bought into the Bosnian Serb propaganda line that he was merely "defending his people" against the crimes of the other side. As justification for what happened at Srebrenica, Mladic has frequently pointed to raids against nearby Serbian villages carried out by forces loyal to a Muslim warlord named Naser Oric. "A rough equivalency developed in the Serb mind between the killings of Serb civilians and the killings of Muslims," Rohde says. "The numbers are not even close. We are talking about 8,000 Muslims versus several hundred Serbs."

But there was also an important international dimension to Mladic’s thinking, David believes. "He had earlier gotten away with ethnic cleansing throughout eastern Bosnia. The Serbs had learned from the passivity of the West that they could push further and further, and not get punished for it."

Could the Srebrenica massacre have been prevented?

Certainly, says Rohde. He is convinced that Mladic would have "backed off" had the United Nations and NATO responded to Serb advances with air strikes as soon as they began encroaching on the U.N. "safe area." David puts much of the blame for the fiasco on the permanent members of the Security Council, such as the United States, Britain, and France, for producing "vague Security Council regulations with all those loopholes" that provided an excuse for non-action.

"They did not give U.N. commanders on the ground enough troops to fight off the Serbs," he says.

 Twitter: @michaeldobbs
A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola